A few minutes before I started playing The Walking Dead: 400 Days, a thunderstorm started up. It was the kind of storm that moves slowly, the kind you know is coming for the half an hour or so before it hits, approaching you from the north. You don’t hear the thunder, or the see the lightning, but you see black clouds rolling in, thick shadows that block out the sun, erasing any doubts that this is going to be any other storm. You know, long before it hits, that this storm is going to make headlines. 400 Days is that storm. It’s the culmination of months of waiting, of dozens of awards and accolades, of black clouds rolling in, telling players to anticipate something big from this series.
400 Days is one hell of a storm.
400 Days is the newest episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and the first episode since November’s season finale. It’s meant to bridge the gap between the award-winning first season, and the yet-to-be-dated second season. The episode focuses on five stories, all of which happen in the first 400 days of the outbreak, and all of which are vaguely connected to a gas station you see in the episode’s opening moments. The stories are never limited by this setting, and could probably be told without that connection, but it serves as a neat anchor for the separate characters, and ties them all together at the end quite nicely.
Each chapter has at least one of the tough choices that tended to cap off every episode of the first season. And while they’re still tough, they’re lacking a bit of their meaning. Choices in the first episode of season one had to have an impact on episode two, simply because we knew that episode two was coming. Season two is almost certainly happening, but without that tangible certainty, it’s hard to really say whether these “meaningful” choices are meaningful or not. Of course, 400 Days is intended as a bridge, and it’s unfair to judge a bridge by where it leads to, so let’s talk about the game itself.
In gameplay terms, 400 Days feels like a distillation of the entire first season, concentrated on action set pieces juxtaposed with quiet drama scenes. Two episodes featured the series’ signature firefights in a world where finding ammo is always a concern, but guns never need to reload in battle. Another episode was set around a hedge maze chase, where the character had to avoid flashlight beams from hunters trying to catch her. One chapter was all about the rapid problem solving and tough choices that made the first season so exciting at times, and the last chapter I played was a calmer exploration sequence, that was about nothing but the hard choices that made the series so famous.
And Telltale is still just as good at character development as ever. It almost feels like 400 Days was a grand experiment. A test to see if they could do more character development for five characters in 15 minutes each than most games manage to do for one in 10 hours. Of course, there’s a bit of cheating involved, most games don’t force your characters to make dozens of impossible choices in such a short span of time, but the setting makes it work. When every choice could mean life or death, it turns every decision into an important one, and one that tends to show how you really feel about other people.
There are moments of levity, moments of calm, and even a joke or two thrown in for good measure, tools that good writers use to make those serious moments, when you’re forced to choose between killing someone or letting them run back to their friends and come back for revenge, all the more dramatic.
Telltale really could just have just pumped out more of the same. They could have given us an epilogue to the first season, and fans would have eaten it up. Instead, they tried something new for games, an anthology that, while relying on unreleased content to give it meaning, manages to stand on its own. In fact, choices you make within the episode change the ending in such a way that it needs to impact season two in a meaningful way. The telltale (no pun intended) messages in the corner of the screen telling me which character noted my choices definitely get my hopes up for some real consequences in season two. It also makes me wonder if Telltale will try more of this anthology format. With the promise of consequences and meaningful choices, these anthologies could make a welcome change of pace from the usual endless stress of the series standard episodes.
400 Days is a fast paced, but very brief, ride through some of the best writing in videogames, and is worth your time. It’s hard to truly judge the bonus episode on its own merit, considering it ties itself so closely to season two, but it’s also hard to judge a storm until the day after. For now, I can see black clouds rolling south, away from me, but I’m hearing reports of flooding down there. Only time will tell if Telltale can make lightning strike twice, but if 400 Days is any indication, it’s gonna be one hell of a flood.